Thursday, December 02, 2010

Your Character’s Emotions

 Mike Nettleton, co-author of The Big Grabowski and its sequel Sometimes A Great Commotion and several other books, is here to talk about himself, his characters, and how the two don’t always overlap.

Welcome Mike Nettleton!

Character Emotions

Writing about your character’s emotions can be tricky. It also mirrors life. Your feelings and reactions in a situation are often much different than you thought they’d be. The same goes for those characters you thought you had all figured out beforehand.

If you’ve ever begun writing a scene, confident you knew how characters would react or what would be going through their minds at a moment of high emotion, only to have them shift gears and head in another direction, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

But our own lives are like that, aren’t they?

Let me give you an example.

After forty-two years of on-the-air work in radio, I’ve decided to retire at age sixty-two. There are a number of reasons for this, including disenchantment with the current corporate consolidation of the broadcasting business. The controlled anarchy I used to love, the adrenaline of flying by the seat of your pants, the parade of quirky or sometimes outright bizarre co-workers and hangers-on, have been replaced by an assembly-line mentality. Money-hungry number crunchers driven by their need to manipulate the stock price of their mega-corporation have put their mouths to the siphon hose and sucked all of the fun out of my occupation.

I decided mid-summer that I would give notice on or near my 62nd birthday. As it drew nearer, the anticipation built. My wife and I began counting down the days, hours and minutes until I performed my last radio show on December 31st. We fantasized about the corporation downsizing again just before I gave notice, eliminating my position, and thanking me with 9 months severance pay. The perfect ending in our eyes.

Finally, the Friday before my birthday arrived, I drove to work, a carefully-worded letter of resignation beside me on the seat, a small knot tightening in the pit of my stomach.

I’d rehearsed the moment in my mind a thousand times. I’d hand the letter to Brad, my boss (for whom I have immense respect), tell him I was retiring at the end of the year, and listen as he tried to wheedle me into staying. But I’d refuse and, as I left his office, I’d jump in the air, click my heels together, and do the happy dance. Unbridled joy would flood through me and I’d feel a sense of well being unlike anything else in my life.

What actually happened was this. After accepting my letter and hearing my end-of-year
I’m outa here declaration, Brad simply nodded, shook my hand, and said, “Congratulations.” And that was it. When I walked out, there was no jubilant jig, no ear-to-ear grin and certainly no feeling of triumph. In fact, to my amazement, I felt a rising sense of melancholy. The elation I thought I’d feel about the upcoming years of freedom and promise transformed into sadness over my lost youth and even a creeping fear that without radio, I might find myself rudderless, without purpose.

After a time, back at my desk working on preparation for my weekend radio show, the mini-gloom passed and I was able to revel a little in the moment. After all, I had plans; I wasn’t going to sit idle. My resignation marked the beginning of a new chapter in my life, not simply the end of an era. Any sense of regret I may have felt seeped away.

And I saw how over-thinking or over-planning the reactions of my characters could inhibit their real emotions and reactions.

Now my advice is: Don’t be afraid to allow the characters you’ve brought to life on the page surprise you with their reactions and feelings. For reasons unknown to you, they may announce a dislike of a particular food or suspicions about a character you thought they’d like. You may find your fearless hard-charging hero quivering in the corner at the appearance of a spider. You may discover he or she is not as scrupulously honest as you once believed.

As far as I’m concerned, the more unpredictably your characters act and feel in the myriad of situations you throw them into, the more three-dimensional they become. Just because they live between the covers of a book shouldn’t mean they have any easier time getting in touch with their true emotions than we mere mortals do.

Thank you, Mike.

If you’d like to find out more about Mike Nettleton and his books, please visit his website, Deadly Duo Mysteries.

 Sometimes a Great Commotion
ISBN# 978-0982144367
Kindle Version

 The Big Grabowski
ISBN-13: 9780982144336
ISBN: 0982144334
Available at Barnes and Noble

I know characters have surprised me with their reactions to situations. How about you? Has a character ever done the opposite of what you expected? Do you let them do what they seem to want to do, or do you try to rope them in? Any questions for Mike about character development?


  1. Good point. Characters' emotions can be just as unreliable as ours are--and influenced by a variety of factors and stresses. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. In real life, nothing is predictable...which is a good thing to remember when telling a story.

  3. I love having characters reveal unpredictable aspects. I thought I would have some romantic tension between two MCs in my last novel, only to have one of them announce he was gay.

  4. My characters are such an unbridled, strong-willed, ill-mannered bunch, when DON'T they surprise me? But I like them that way.

  5. Hi Helen and Mike .. thanks for the read about characters and emotions .. we are unpredictable creatures aren't we .. complacent, unfair, compassionate, cruel - who knows what's going to happen next .. or how we ourselves will feel .. it's that emotion of the moment that hits ..

    Thanks - interesting read .. Hilary

  6. Laura, that made me laugh. Don't you just love when characters surprise you!

    So far, we all seem to agree that we as writers can't always control our characters.

  7. I felt a little more in control when writing my first book, but in this second one, the characters have surprised me. Just like Mike's real life situation, I'd planned the scene, but in the middle, forcing it to continue as scripted didn't feel right as I saw other ways the characters might react.

  8. Characters--like life--can be very unpredictable. :)

  9. Speaking of unpredictable characters - my husband, Mike, who is today's guest, forgot that he had to race down to the radio station this morning to record a couple of interviews. When he returns he'll be here to respond to your comments.
    In the meantime, thanks to everyone who's stopped by.

  10. Happy retirement, Mike!

    My characters constantly surprise me and, like teenagers, refuse to listen when I insist they do something else so I’ve learned to go with the flow.

  11. Thanks to all who read and comment. One of the great positives about letting your characters drive the direction of the story is that you end up with much richer people in your story. The hit man with a weakness for puppies, the prostitute who's an expert on Shostakovich, the sullen teen who sneaks out on Saturday nights to work in a soup kitchen. I love characters who don't fall into neat categories.

  12. Thank you for the insightfull advice, very helpfull

  13. Thanks. It's all too easy to have your characters behave exactly as you do. Digging deeper and letting them reveal themselves and get into trouble without overthinking makes for a better book.

  14. I loved your example. I too have personal experience with anticipating the emotion of an uncoming encounter and being disappointed.
    In my writing I have started a scene planning my character to react in a certain way and then realizing it would be better if he or she did something entirely different.

  15. Thanks for this, I'm learning so much from the posts and the comments as well.

    Re the retirement letter, we had a similar situation with my husband's work, but 7 months on life is finding some pattern again. It's different to what we expected, but great. Good luck, and enjoy the unpredictable outcomes!

  16. Writing character emotions is the most difficult part of writing, I think, to show it in a proper way. It might be because I'm very calm and easy myself (so they say). It doesn't feel natural for me to play out strong emotional reactions, neither in writing nor in real life. I usually try to do it indirectly, or with understaament.

    Cold As Heaven

  17. I love it when my characters surprise me. I expect/plan on one reaction only to find them doing something different.

  18. Sue, I hope your husband's retirement continues to go well. I'm glad Mike is finding outlets like blogging before he walks out that door. He's much more open to surprises and unexpected avenues (in real life) than I am. I'm a Virgo to the core.

  19. Mike - this is on the button for me! I want to be real quiet and see how my characters react to what is going on - and not have them always act like I THINK I might!It is a good dance but a slow one. Thanks Helen for an interesting guest!

  20. Several of the comments touched on something very important. It's easy to let characters reflect your own personality or basic nature. I, too am a pretty calm, placid person. I dislike conflict and will follow the flight part of the fight or flight reflex. But my characters can't sometimes they need to explode, go over the top and act totally irrationally. And to make this happen you have to give yourself permission to lose it. Sometimes scary, but gratifying when you see a character emerge in three dimensions.

  21. Excellent writing tip here, Mike. Creating realistic characters is a subtle process with many fine-line nuances, and this aspect of it - emotional shifts and surprise reactions - is one of those things that can set apart a VERY well developed character from a just 'well' developed one. Thanks for sharing with us today, and thanks, Helen, for having Mike on!

  22. This is great advice. Too often it becomes a self-imposed limitation to have the characters act and be "just-so" despite how very non-uniform us as flesh and blood people are.

  23. I agree, sometimes overthinking can do more harm than good. There have been times when my words and characters just go with the flow, and the result is more true to life and relatable than a well planned reaction.

  24. It helps that the longer the author is with the character, the more the character reveals about him/herself. The more the author begins to feel as though they are "channeling" the character, the less they try to control or dictate to the character. We begin to let the characters act for themselves, not necessarily according to our plan for or image of them.

    Thanks Mike!

  25. Thanks again to Helen for having me on. After 25 years of writing, I'm still learning day to day and sharing with other writers is always a huge part of the equation


  26. Great advice. It's important to listen to our characters.

  27. Interesting story of your own changing emotions in a stress-filled moment in life! You make an excellent point about characters' changing emotions.

    When my character starts to take over in my book, I love it!


  28. So do I, Mary. (Makes my job easier.)

  29. It's true--the upheavals we face will inevitably help our characters feel more real emotionally. Good luck with this transition, Mike! I have the feeling it will bring great things--


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